Washington Co. to test visual impact of possible tower site

National parks officials, trail users optimistic about alternative location

National parks officials, trail users optimistic about alternative location

November 18, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Representatives from three national parks will be watching and taking photos from more than a dozen view points Friday when Washington County conducts a balloon test to gauge the visual impact of a potential site for an emergency communications tower in South County.

The test, which uses cranes and balloons to simulate the height of the 190-foot tower, was postponed from last Friday due to weather.

The tower would be the last and southernmost in a 10-tower system the county is building as part of a public safety communications network that will enable all police, fire and rescue agencies in the county to communicate with each other during emergencies.

The site originally proposed for the southernmost tower, at the intersection of Keep Tryst and Sandy Hook roads, drew protests last year from nearby residents, hikers and park officials who said it would tarnish scenic views from several popular overlooks.


Since then, Washington County officials have turned their attention to a site almost a mile to the northwest, on the other side of U.S. 340 from the original site, on private land off Miller Avenue, near the base of Maryland Heights. The county has a verbal agreement to acquire property there from the Himes family, Washington County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III said last week.

For Friday's test, three spots a hundred yards apart will be used for the simulation, Kroboth said.

Several parks officials and trail users who protested the original site said this week that they were optimistic about the alternative site.

"The National Park Service is extremely delighted with the spirit of cooperation of Washington County, to move the tower from its original site," said Dennis Frye, a Pleasant Valley native and chief historian at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park. "That location at Weverton was a terrible eyesore for all four of the national parks in the area."

Both sites are near Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and the C&O Canal section of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.

Frye said he thought moving the tower north and crowding it against the foot of Maryland Heights would make it better disguised and harder to see, at least from the Appalachian Trail and C&O Canal.

The unknown, he said, is how visible the tower would be from Maryland Heights, which was the site of a significant Civil War battle in September 1862 and is known for its outstanding views, Frye said.

"The test will determine how this new location will affect that view shed," he said. "For me, Maryland Heights is the key."

In addition to Maryland Heights, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park staff will take photos of the balloon test from areas throughout the park, including Loudon Heights and Short Hill Mountain on the opposite side of the Potomac River, said Andrew Lee, Lands Management Specialist for the park.

"It's just to get us some sort of feeling of how this thing is going to look," Lee said. "It's subjective, but we look at things like whether it's silhouetted against a background (and) whether you can even see it at all."

In addition, officials from the C&O Canal will view the test from various points along the canal, and Appalachian Trail officials will view it from Weverton Cliffs, a popular overlook on South Mountain, Lee said.

Members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club also hope to go to Weverton Cliffs to evaluate the new site for themselves, Maryland District Trails Manager Rick Canter said.

"I think Washington County's done a great job working with us and compromising," said Canter, who said the club does not want to compromise emergency infrastructure, only to ensure that the county does everything it can to minimize the tower's impact.

The balloon test is part of an assessment process for the site that will also include a public hearing and an evaluation by state historical preservation officials, Washington County Communications Maintenance Manager Pete Loewenheim said.

Kroboth said he expects a public hearing to be held in January or February.

If you go ...

What: Balloon test for proposed South County emergency communications tower

When: Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Where: The proposed tower site is off Miller Avenue, near the base of Maryland Heights, in the Sandy Hook area. Potential viewing spots include Maryland Heights, Weverton Cliffs and, across the river, from Loudon Heights and Short Hill Mountain.

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